content brand vs brand content blog post header

Do You Need Branded Content or a Content Brand?

Ever been to the website BabyCenter.com? If you’ve had a baby in the last few years there’s a good chance you used it while looking for answers to parenting questions.

Did you catch that Q&A with Daniel Craig about being James Bond? It was on The Red Bulletin. Are you taking the kids to see the Lego Ninjago movie that’s based on the building sets and TV show and has tons of other merchandise?

Branded content is a way to produce advertising and marketing material that provides appropriate value to a target audience while raising brand awareness and promoting a brand, product, or service at the same time.

However, a content brand is something completely different. Everything mentioned in the first two paragraphs represents brands that are taking content marketing to the next level and moving beyond branded content.

What’s the Difference?

You can write articles that get published on a company blog, design eye-catching infographics, and produce engaging videos, but doing those things does not create a content brand. Branded content could be any type of media with a logo and a call to action slapped on it. The content probably matches your corporate style guide and follows your brand voice.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with approaching content marketing this way. It can work. Organizations that are building content brands, however, have discovered the value in building an audience and giving those people more than advertising veiled as consumable content.

Audience building is one of the key differentiators between branded content and a content brand. You can sometimes build an audience with branded content. But more often, branded content refers to articles that are search engine optimized and generated to capture leads at a certain point in the buying cycle. As a result, prospects often get the answers they need and then leave your website with no real intention of returning any time soon. That’s why marketers end up using tactics such as retargeting campaigns and follow up emails.

With a content brand, the main purpose is building an engaged audience and improving customer loyalty. Content brands are typically separate web properties with their own look and feel. In many cases, content brands use an even softer sales approach than typical content marketing – and that’s if there’s a sales push at all. The audience returns time and time again without searching for answers to problems because they are excited to see what’s coming next.

Red Bull is one of the most cited content marketing success stories of all time, and that story keeps expanding. The Red Bulletin, which we mentioned in the intro, is an online lifestyle magazine that Red Bull’s media arm, Red Bull Media House, produces. A Q&A with James Bond may not be directly linked to increased beverage sales, and neither is a stunt like a free falling from above the Earth’s atmosphere.

Red Bull produces so much original content it’s become more of a media company than a beverage company. So, is it an outlier? Or, are other brands pulling off similar strategies?

6 Kickass Examples of Content Brands

Maybe you’re skeptical that marketing in this way really works. To show there’s a method to this madness, here’s a look at even more companies using content brands to do big things.

1. Co-Op Journal – REI

Take a look at REI’s blog. Go ahead, click around and we’ll wait for you to come back …REI journal logo

What did you see? Any reviews of sporting goods? Any links to related products at the end of blog posts? Any lines about visiting the online store or finding a retail location? Nope. Some content marketers (myself included) might see this as a major missed opportunity. Yet, this move is 100% intentional.

I heard REI’s Sr. Manager of Content Marketing Paolo Mottola speak on a panel at Content Marketing World 2017. Afterwards, I tracked him down to ask if REI put any type of call to action in its content.

Paolo rolled his eyes so hard I could hear his ocular muscles stretching. It was painfully obvious he was sick of answering the same question. Paolo explained that the goal was to create a pure experience for their audience and not to muddy it up with ads and self-promotion. As a result, REI’s content marketing team is creating an authentic experience and building a loyal base of adoring fans.

That’s visible in the Member Portraits content, which is the only time you’ll read anything promoting REI. They just let their customers say it for them.

REI invests a lot of resources into this effort and the result is breathtaking content. Check out the retailer’s short films, including the inspirational Paul’s Boots. It tells the story of how a man’s hiking boots made it across the Appalachian Trail even though he’d passed away. It’s been viewed more than 1-million times on YouTube in one year.

Watch the Trailer

2. Baby Center – Johnson & Johnson

baby center logoMost people visit Baby Center and never realize that it’s owned by same the company that sells Desitin, Band-Aids, and Tylenol. In addition to traditional articles, the parenting website offers everything from advice on getting pregnant to due date calculators to a baby name finder. You’ll have a hard time finding a better resource for moms and dads online, but they aren’t pushing baby shampoo, lotion, or wipes at all.

Johnson & Johnson still publishes educational content for parents on obviously branded microsites like JohnsonBaby.com. However, Baby Center is a different kind of media asset. It’s a content brand that gives Johnson & Johnson an incredibly detailed look at their target audience.

Baby Center allows Johnson & Johnson to gather all sorts of valuable data about parents so the company can learn how to better serve its customers. The website is available in 11 countries, there are regionally specific sites with customized experiences, and there’s an app that’s available in six languages.

It must be helping, because Baby Center has been around since 1997. If it weren’t providing any value to the company, they wouldn’t have kept it up for 20 years.

3. P&G Everyday – Procter & Gamble

P&G every day logoProcter & Gamble owns a plethora of consumer brands. It’s also building its own lifestyle brand with P&G Everyday.

Unlike Baby Center, P&G doesn’t shy away from mentioning its products. However, what it has done is create a website targeting consumers with content that fits their current stage in life.

For example, P&G recently teamed up with LinkedIn to help college kids and 20-somethings start “Adulting Like a Pro.” Articles offer advice on how to live life after you move away from home. Each piece is connected to a brand. Crest helps you learn how to make a good first impression at a job interview. Tide helps you understand the proper way to do your own laundry. Old Spice offers tips for achieving work-life balance.

Of course, there are also coupons, links in articles, and plenty of product placement in the images. It’s highly promotional, but the content still delivers a lot of value.

One of the bigger efforts featured on P&G Everyday is its television program, Home Made Simple, which airs on the OWN network. Do you think producing a TV show is an innovative move? It’s actually very old school.

The reason daytime dramas are called “soap operas” is because they were being produced by companies selling household products with the goal of reaching American housewives. Procter & Gamble has been in the broadcast entertainment business since 1937 when it started producing Guiding Light as a CBS radio drama. The show went on to become the longest-running drama in television history.

4. CMO – Adobe

cmo logoAdobe pulls no punches when targeting its audience with its unique content brand, CMO.com. They want chief marketing officers to hold their company in the highest regard, so they literally made that job the name of an online magazine.

Of course, CMOs are far from the only kinds of people interested in Adobe products. Graphic designers use Photoshop and Illustrator every day. Web developers are using Dreamweaver and media producers are using After Effects, Premiere, and Audition.

But in a larger organization, it’s going to be the CMO who makes the decision on the creative software in which to invest. Not to mention, other members of Adobe’s audience likely have aspirational dreams of becoming the CMO. The trust and recognition Adobe is building with its content brand is priceless.

CMO.com features a wide variety of content types and topics. Articles are often written by peers and thought leaders from groundbreaking companies. Adobe also promotes its original research through Adobe Digital Insights, which moves people further down the funnel to lead-generating, high value content.

Yet another content brand Adobe owns is its Summit conferences, live events that bring thought leaders, marketers, and brands together.

5. HR-Playbook – Security Health Plan

HR playbook logoThere are plenty of examples of big B2B companies succeeding with branded content efforts. From in-depth coverage on IBM’s THINK Blog and GE Reports to Cisco’s SuperSmart comic book style content, lots of time, money, and creativity are going into content marketing.

Still, you don’t need to be huge to launch your own content brand. In 2017, Element developed a content strategy for Security Health Plan, a health insurance carrier serving select areas of Wisconsin.

Element and Security Health Plan worked together to create HR-Playbook, an online resource for human resources professionals in Wisconsin. It started by identifying HR directors as important target personas. Then, we crafted a brand, messaging, editorial content, and downloadable tools for the audience The strategy included localizing content to make it more relevant for HR professionals working in Wisconsin.

While a portion of HR-Playbook’s content covers topics related to health care and health insurance plans, we could also branch out into areas such as employee wellness and stress management. Those topics still have a connection to health, but we wrote about talent recruitment, corporate culture, and time management as well.

Security Health Plan was presented as the sponsor of this content, and we often featured subject matter experts from the company, but HR-Playbook was its own separate web property with a unique brand.

6. Breakthrough®Advisor – Breakthrough®Fuel

breakthrough fuel logoAnother Element client with a smart B2B content marketing strategy is Breakthrough®Fuel. When we started working with them, we learned they were already producing a lot of their own high-quality content.

The Breakthrough®Advisor is an exclusive monthly publication that gives shippers in-depth information on fuel markets in the United States and beyond. Only Breakthrough’s clients have access to it. So, the purpose of their content brand focuses on providing ongoing value while building trust and loyalty.

Element saw the Breakthrough®Advisor as a unique selling point for prospects. As part of Breakthrough’s content marketing program, we recommended a strategy in which condensed versions of the Advisor were given to site visitors who signed up to receive a limited trial. It gave potential clients a taste of Breakthrough®Fuel’s knowledge and expertise without devaluing the exclusive content.

The whole thing is designed to leave prospects wanting more!

What’s the Right Choice for Your Content Strategy?

The decision to build a content brand is a sizable commitment. It will require patience because it takes time to build an audience from scratch. You’ll need a documented strategy, editorial planning, and a commitment to investing in creating high quality content.

Maybe you’re not quite ready to transform your organization into a media company like Red Bull. That’s understandable. But, you see the value in reaching people with your own unique content.

Everyone needs to start somewhere. The toughest part is finding and building a team of people who can help you develop ideas and bring them to life. The fact that so many companies are entering the content space means there’s a high demand and decreasing supply of talent. You need writers, designers, strategists, and analysts.

That’s where an agency like Element can help. We’ve structured our exclusive content marketing programs to start with a foundational marketing strategy that builds month after month, year after year. Element customizes each content marketing program to meet our clients’ needs and help them achieve business goals.

Element strives to work with your internal marketing department as part of the team, filling in gaps when you need creative talent and big ideas. Whether you’re considering a content brand or just want to start publishing some blog posts, contact Element to get guidance on your way to boosting your marketing efforts in groundbreaking ways.

Director of Content Marketing
Kasey Steinbrinck has been creating content since he was just a little kid, writing stories and making radio shows on his Fisher Price tape recorder. He went on to produce local television and wrote for an area newspaper before discovering the power of telling stories online. Kasey worked as a content marketer, blogger, and copywriter for two ecommerce companies before joining Element in 2015.